September 5, 2000 - From the September, 2000 issue

LAUSD Seeks Creative Solutions

Consider the bleak picture: LAUSD must create 85,000 new seats in the next five years. An already shocking number of students spend over an hour each day being bused to school, and year-round scheduling is swiftly becoming the rule. Mott Smith, Special Projects Director for LAUSD and a former editor of TPR, is charged with facilitating innovative approaches for new school facilities, such as turnkey and joint-use developments. Can anyone from within LAUSD do it?


Mott Smith

Mott, LAUSD's unsuccessful effort to secure new facilities for its over 700,000 students are now legendary. You, however, are part of a new cadre of professionals who have joined the District's Facilities team. Please elaborate on what your responsibilities include?

My job is to help identify new approaches to providing school seats. Our needs are so great right now that in addition to the standard delivery methods where the District acts like a traditional developer, we must explore alternate methods like developer turnkey, leasing, joint-use and special partnerships with other public and private users. Potential partners in our efforts range from the City's Parks and Libraries departments, to federal agencies, to private developers who can help augment our staff in delivering quality schools to our kids.

Give our readers an overview of the District's Facilities organization chart.

Our current team is a remarkable combination of the best long-term District staffers and some incredibly talented new people who've come in from the private sector and outside agencies.

Robert Buxbaum, former facilities head at New York City's public school system, is the GM of our Facilities Division. Underneath Robert is Kathi Littmann, our Director of New Facilities. Kathi has worked in architecture, public school teaching and major institutional project management. She oversees all aspects of new school construction, from community outreach to site acquisition and procurement of design and construction services.

Scot Graham works under Kathi as the District's head of Real Estate. His background includes several million square feet of successful mixed-use development as well as high-level management within major private corporations. Scot is in charge of everything from site selection to acquisition and disposition of real property and facilities.

Parallel to Real Estate organizationally is our Project Management team, which is headed up by Charlie Anderson, a very seasoned executive who has run major construction programs around the world.

I work directly under Scot, but my job connects me to all of these teams. My assignment is to ensure that the alternative projects plug into to our existing project delivery system successfully.

Seeking context here, what is the magnitude of LAUSD's facilities crisis? How many new seats are needed?

Schools exist to do one thing: Teach. But the growing number of year-round schools combined with how many kids get bused out of their neighborhoods every day means that the District and the public have had a hard time focusing on that core mission.

LAUSD needs over 85,000 new school seats over the next five years just to meet our minimal needs. And that 85,000 only works if every single District high school is placed on a multitrack year-round calendar. That's simply not acceptable for what should be the best urban district in the country. But that's our near-term reality.

Our ultimate intention is to build enough capacity that we can return all of our schools to two-semester operation. That will require building over 200,000 new seats, an additional $6-8 billion of investment and laser-focused, concerted efforts by the District, the community and the State.

In light of that demonstrable demand for more schools and the District's legal responsibility to provide adequate facilities, how is it that more than a year after the so-called "reform board" and new management team assumed responsibility at the District, less than 500 seats have even been put forward for funding from available local and State bond funds?

The State system for allocating new school construction funds puts urban districts like LAUSD at a serious disadvantage. Before you can reserve a share of State funding for a project under the current system, you must complete environmental review as determined by Department of Toxic Substances Control.

If you're a suburban district surrounded by pristine, undeveloped land, this is often not too difficult. But in a place like L.A.-where remarkably few sites haven't had some exposure to industrial use-it's nearly impossible to accomplish this quickly. So when funding is allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis, the urbans just can't compete.

That said, we're developing a much better working relationship with the State, and we have important signals that we're making some progress towards credibility. By year-end, we'll have broken ground on over 1,000 new school seats. In fact, just last month we launched construction on two new projects-Van Nuys New Primary Center and Bell New Primary Center.

We're learning very quickly that when we demonstrate accountability and success, communities and legislators are much more interested in working with us.

Late last month Superior Court Judge Yaffi said that the State Allocation Board-the body that determines how California school construction money is given out-violated statutory mandates in determining which districts get state matching bond funds. But he refused to issue an injunction to stop the State allocation process from depleting its remaining new facilities dollars. Given that L.A. Unified applied for less then 10% of what it was eligible for in the way of matching State bond funds, and other districts continue to ask for their matches, does the District expect to actually benefit from the court's ruling?

It goes without saying that we're extremely pleased with the Judge's ruling. And fortunately, there is money left at the State level for new construction. The often-cited June 30, 2000 funding deadline was not a statutory date. It was just when the State was projected to run out of money.

Thankfully, June 30th came and went, and some Prop. 1A proceeds still remain. Especially in light of Judge Yaffi's recent ruling, we're extremely hopeful that we will get at least a portion of that money and demonstrate to the public and the State that we can spend it effectively and productively.

The School District's new Facilities management team has produced a new Master Plan, now adopted by the Board. But since neither the old Board nor the new Board and Facilities team have produced any schools, how can you assure the public that there is a difference between last year and this with respect to the capacity of the District to meet this challenge?

There's no comparison. A year ago, a small but dedicated facilities staff was being asked to build tens of thousands of seats-way beyond their work capacity.

Today, we have a nearly complete in-house staff of professional project managers and an extremely supportive Board Facilities Committee, for which we are very grateful. We also have for the first time a ranked priority list of all the projects we need to build in the next several years-our Master Plan Priority List.

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I can't say how important this last achievement is. And we owe a great deal to our Board, Kathi and Charlie for creating and adopting this. The issue is, when you have multiple projects on-line and you don't know which are the most important, the easy ones get built and the hard ones don't. That means that projects in inner city-where safe land is hard to find, relocation is more challenging, and the need, ironically, is vastly more critical-could easily be superceded by those in less challenging, lower-need areas.

But we now have a tool for making sure the projects we need most get delivered first. We also have a much better idea of what these projects will cost. And, very importantly, we're staffing up our acquisitions team-a vital link. All this puts us in a much better position to manage the whole program.

We're still not quite there yet. But given the facilities leadership at the Board and staff levels, we finally have an excellent shot at beginning to hack away at the new seats problem.

As the Special Projects Director for new facilities you're responsible for dealing with the "turnkey" projects-where the District enters into purchase and sales agreements with private sector developers, who in turn site, design, and build a finished school. Could you provide our readers with an update on your efforts to enter into such agreements? What potential would this have for delivering the tens of thousands of new seats needed?

This is extremely exciting for us. The Board endorsed the turnkey concept on July 25th, when it approved negotiations with EXED, LLC and Niemann Properties for a turnkey elementary school in the Belmont area. The project has expanded since then to include a possible joint-use arrangement with the City's Recreation & Parks Department. We're hammering out the deal points as we speak.

Turnkey is a lot like what we already do when we buy portable classrooms: Specifications are agreed upon, we order classrooms built to those specs, and then when they get delivered, we pay for them. The only difference with turnkey schools is that we're buying permanent buildings that come with the land attached.

The advantages it offers are fourfold. First, it engages the energy and resources of the private sector to help meet this public need. Second, it fosters creative approaches to solving the seat problem. Third, private developers may be able to navigate through the regulatory process more efficiently than we can as a public agency. And finally, it provides an augmentation to our own staff efforts.

Another practical idea that seems to be percolating in the District is the temporary solution of leasing vacant office space for school use. Can you elaborate on the prospects of this happening?

Expect some news on this in the coming months. We have very good reason to believe that there is some non-school space in the City that could be made, or already is, Field Act-compliant. Leasing some of this space could prove a much-needed release-valve for our immediate need for seats.

Mott, much of the development process for these sites, as you indicated at the top of our interview, is related to State oversight, whether it's the funding or the approval of the designs, etc. What does new Superintendent Governor Romer bring to the equation with respect to the politics of site acquisition and design to move this process forward?

Governor Romer is extremely skilled at keeping us focused on the big picture. He's also keenly aware of the political implications of everything we do. We need some key successes early on in order to provide legislators with the ammunition they need to ask Sacramento to support what has historically been a much-maligned agency. Governor Romer continues to be extremely proactive in keeping us focused on that goal.

One facilities strategy that the District has not been interested in championing is a partnership with new charter schools. Given that charter Pueblo Nuevo is scheduled to open in September after less then 18 months of development, and two or three others are on the drawing board, is partnering with community based charter schools not a good idea?

I strongly disagree with the statement that we don't support charter schools. Part of my job is to work with charter school operators to bring new seats on line to help meet our needs.

Charter schools enjoy some valuable regulatory advantages over District schools. And this makes them great candidates for providing at least some of the capacity relief we need on a fast track. We need to do everything we can to support responsible charter operators who are doing something very important to bolster our region's educational infrastructure.

But most if not all of charter schools' regulatory advantages would go away were District money to go into their facilities.

And one reason charter schools can sometimes be built so quickly is they are not held to the same standards as District schools. Charters like Pueblo Nuevo-a beautiful school, to be sure-can be built without standard-sized classrooms and with no libraries or multipurpose rooms. No school built or owned by the District could or should be without those things.

Mott, in the middle of any facilities PERT-chart to site, design, build and finally open a school is the show-stopper prerequisite for environmental sign-off on new sites. Is your work impacted by the environmental review process? If so, how?

The simple fact is, almost all sites in L.A. raise some environmental questions. Our problem is that even when a site's risks are low, we still have to spend 6 to 18 months just characterizing it in detail. By law, our Board can't vote to acquire a site until the DTSC says we're done with this process.

Add CEQA to the end of that process, and the result is, it can take up to two years from the date we arrive at a preferred site to the point where we can take title to it. Only then can we start relocation or any planned remediation. So just to begin construction, even on a relatively simple site, can be a three-year wait.

Now, if a private developer or another, specifically empowered public agency wanted to work with us to assemble appropriate sites, clean them up to an acceptable standard, and offer them to us for sale in a way that helps accelerate that process, that's something we're interested in exploring.

Lastly Mott, what should the public expect vis-à-vis the development of new LAUSD schools in the years to come? What is a practical timeline?

The kids are coming in 2005-2006 whether we like it or not. We positively must have seats for them by the time they get here.

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